By Michael Church
(Reuters) – China’s success-hungry football fans place crushing demands on the national team and no one knows that better than the current coach, former Everton midfielder Li Tie.
Since President Xi Jinping, an avid football fan, said in 2011 that his dream was for China to qualify for, host and then win the World Cup, that pressure has only intensified.
World Cup winner Marcello Lippi was made one of the best paid coaches in the world to achieve goal number one, but walked away in November 2019 following a damaging 2-1 loss against Syria.
Li stepped up to succeed him and turned around China’s fortunes and a run of four straight wins secured a place in the July 1 draw for the final round of Asia’s preliminaries for the 2022 World Cup.
That means the country’s hopes of a first World Cup appearance since their debut in 2002 remains alive as the Chinese set their sights on securing one of the four guaranteed Asian berths available in Qatar.
Li’s ascent into the top job was long predicted after an apprenticeship served under Lippi at both Guangzhou Evergrande and China, and he has been quick to credit the Italian for his growth as a coach.
“I’d like to pay tribute to Marcello Lippi and thank him for the years he helped the team and me,” the 44-year-old said.
Li has not always been so trusted by the country’s football establishment and he understands how quickly plaudits can turn into brickbats.
As a highly-rated prospect, the Shenyang-born player was part of a development squad sent to Brazil to hone their talents before ultimately captaining his nation at the 1997 FIFA World Youth Championships.
Expectations were high but the youngsters fell short in Malaysia, crashing out in the group phase to prompt a savage backlash from fans.
The scorn poured on them, however, would pale in comparison to the vilification later the same year as China — with Li increasingly prominent in the side — missed out on qualification for the 1998 World Cup.
That failure haunted the Chinese until Bora Milutinovic steered the country to the 2002 World Cup, but the dark days were soon to return.
A loss in the final of the 2004 Asian Cup to Japan was followed by a series of flops which saw China humiliatingly miss out on a place in the final round of Asia’s World Cup qualifying competitions for the 2006 finals.
Li retired from the international stage in 2007 but China’s struggles continued as the country made early exits from qualifying for the next two World Cups.
After taking up the assistant coach’s role under Lippi in Guangzhou in 2012, Li took his first steps as a head coach at big-spending Hebei China Fortune in 2015 and initially impressed before being replaced by Manuel Pellegrini.
His coaching apprenticeship continued with Wuhan Zall, where he won China’s second division title in 2018 before leaving to take on what is arguably one of the more high-pressured jobs in world football.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Peter Rutherford)